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Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds,…

Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our… (edition 2020)

by Merlin Sheldrake (Author)

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1055192,263 (4.2)5
Title:Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures
Authors:Merlin Sheldrake (Author)
Info:Random House (2020), 352 pages
Collections:Your library
Tags:non-fiction, British, twenty-first century, natural history, mycology

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Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake



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Unusual topic and unusual writing style. I enjoyed it! Will likely re-read it to make more sense of some passages. It was an excellent introduction to some topics, people, and research I knew nothing about. Very inspiring! ( )
  tgraettinger | Sep 1, 2020 |
Welcome to the wonderfully wild and woolly word of - fungi. We eat it, walk over it, and don't even notice it deep under the forest floor. Truffles are highly sought after. Plants have a symbiotic relationship with it. And yet, how much do we really know about fungi, how it works, and its relationship with other elements of the natural world?

Milton Sheldrake delves into the fascinating lives of creatures that are neither animal nor plant but are essential to the natural world. I wasn't sold on the beginning of this book - usually when I pick up a book about the natural wold that I can't fathom, it tends to be about physics. But then, the chapter on mind-altering mushrooms introduced me to one that hijacks carpenter ants to spread their spores in most dramatic fashion, and I was suddenly hooked. Filled with all sorts of fascinating tidbits, acknowledgement of where we need more study, and envisioning a future where fungi may help answer the climate crisis, this book is sure to leave you with an appreciation for fungi that you never had before. ( )
1 vote bell7 | Jul 29, 2020 |
In the spirit of books like “Underland” by Robert MacFarlane (which actually features Merlin Sheldrake in his mycological splendor), “Entangled Life,” much like the dwarves arriving at Bilbo’s house, brashly pulls you, the reader, out on a rough-and-tumble adventure that engages the senses like few literary works. You’ll quickly find yourself sweaty, running alongside truffle dogs in the in the Italian countryside, brambles scratching your arms, or as a child, immersed in a giant pile of leaves, the moist scent of decomposition saturating your nostrils as you burrow down to the interface where leaves meet the earth, writhing with worms.

In his introduction, using the language of his friend and mentor David Abram, Sheldrake diffracts his narrative through the prism of phenomenology. “Our perceptions work in large part by expectations. It takes less cognitive effort to make sense of the world using preconceived images updated with a small amount of new sensory information than to constantly form entirely new perceptions from scratch…Tricked out of our expectations, we fall back on our senses."

On first glance, you might think that this is a book about fungi. And in a way, it is—as much as you might say that an oil painting is about paint and canvas. And yet, just like the painter, Sheldrake uses his medium of mycelium to illustrate not just the qualities of a natural kingdom, but to paint the icon of a new paradigm. In the world of “Entangled Life,” Sheldrake’s portraits dissolve the veil that normally crisply define the thresholds of individual organisms. Given that your corporeal subsistence as a human is reliant on yeasts (a form of fungi), both to maintain your microbiome, and to pre-digests your food, where do you end, and where does the fungal kingdom begin? Given that trees are unable to access the water and nutrients they need to thrive without mycelial networks, is it useful to refer to an individual tree as an organism, or must we expand our definition to include its fungal partners? To use the terminology of J. G. Bennett, maybe even the concept of individuality begins only at the scale of the species.

Sheldrake has PhD in ecology, and relies upon a scientific epistemology to construct and buttress his rhetoric. And yet where much of science hones in at the order of mechanism, to the degree that we lose the forrest in the trees, Sheldrake employs science in a way that invites in our somatic selves and leaves us awed by the synergies dancing our eyes and branching beneath our feet.

Like the effects of the psilocybin mushrooms which Sheldrake describes, this book can serve as a portal through our drab mental models into the vibrant, bustling, sonorous, and pungent world that has been longing for our attention. ( )
1 vote willszal | Jun 26, 2020 |
Most of us think very little, if at all, about fungi. Sheldrake’s remarkable book should change that for anyone willing to pick it up. He writes enthusiastically about these remarkable beings, especially what they can do for and to humans. His narrative covers fungal biology and ecology well enough to satisfy anyone with a scientific background. However, when he delves into the remarkable creative and destructive capacitates of fungi, one can only look on in awe. It turns out that all of plant life would not exist without the intimate connections known as mycorrhizal networks; fungi can break down just about anything (e.g., rocks, cigarette buts, radioactive waste, etc.); they can influence the behavior of other organisms (including humans) to carry out their bidding; they can produce many remarkably useful substances (e.g., penicillin, beer, wine, yoghurt, cheese, etc.); also they can be coaxed into fabricating almost any structure, including furniture, housing, leather, etc.

Sheldrake provides his readers with a cornucopia of scientific detail yet the book remains utterly accessible for anyone with little interest in fungi. He accomplishes this feat by generalizing from the strange to the familiar. Mycorrhizal networks serve as metaphors for neural nets and the world wide web; fungal-algal associations in lichens provide an opportunity to discuss interspecies boundaries; fungal mind-altering drugs give him the opportunity to discuss his personal experience with LSD and how psychedelic drugs work to alter the perception of self thus offering promise in the treatment of mental illness; and especially, fungal digestion of human waste products (even dirty diapers) serves as a platform to discuss environmental degradation. His description of making hard cider from apples purloined from Newton’s tree is a tour de force.

This is indeed a remarkable book filled with strange facts and wonderful opportunities. It is never boring and well worth reading. ( )
1 vote ozzer | Jun 25, 2020 |
Lots of drawn-out writing, especially about anthropomorphization and linguistic issues. Not so much science. Do we have the wrong metaphors for fungi and plants? I couldn't care less. It is easy to write about, but not very scientifically productive.

Furthermore, even when it comes to science, every point is drawn out excessively, and the author gives a completely non-critical summary of lots of well-known phenomena. For example, fungal networks for computation. This is something that should be looked at carefully and critically, not just accepted with a "gee whiz" like a Wired magazine article. The chapter on psychedelics is a retread of Michael Pollan.

I really would have liked to have seen the author's own work be much more emphasized. Sheldrake is a biologist, or at least he has a Ph.D., but much of this book is just shallow interviews with other scientists, like you'd get from any journalist.

On the plus side, there was some good science. The most interesting parts to me, were the stories about fungal parasites, which are much more common than I had heard of. Also I was quite interested to hear about the plants that parasites on mycelial networks, ultimately getting their nutrition from other plants. I liked the author's perspective that mycelial networks are not just links between trees, but facilitate links between trees, possibly to help themselves. Allowing nutrients to flow from some trees to other trees and possibly back, helps the fungi keep a stable host ecosystem.

The illustrations, originally drawn with ink from Shaggy ink cap mushrooms, were also great.

> besides penicillin: cyclosporine (an immunosuppressant drug that makes organ transplants possible), cholesterol-lowering statins, a host of powerful antiviral and anticancer compounds (including the multibillion-dollar drug Taxol, originally extracted from the fungi that live within yew trees), not to mention alcohol (fermented by a yeast) and psilocybin (the active component in psychedelic mushrooms

> Some fungi have tens of thousands of mating types, approximately equivalent to our sexes (the record holder is the split gill fungus, Schizophyllum commune, which has more than twenty-three thousand mating types, each of which is sexually compatible with nearly every one of the others). The mycelium of many fungi can fuse with other mycelial networks if they are genetically similar enough, even if they aren't sexually compatible

> One partner plays a paternal role, providing genetic material only. The other plays a maternal role, providing genetic material and growing the flesh that matures into truffles and spores. Truffles differ from humans in that either + or - mating types can be maternal or paternal

> Fungi produce plant growth hormones that manipulate roots, causing them to proliferate into masses of feathery branches—with a greater surface area, the chances of an encounter between root tips and fungal hyphae become more likely.

> nematode-eating fungi only produce worm-hunting organs and issue a chemical summons when they sense nematodes are close by. If there is plenty of material to rot, they don't bother, even if worms abound

> The methods fungi use to hunt nematodes are grisly and diverse. It is a habit that has evolved multiple times—many fungal lineages have reached a similar conclusion but in different ways. Some fungi grow adhesive nets, or branches to which nematodes stick. Some use mechanical means, producing hyphal nooses that inflate in a tenth of a second when touched, ensnaring their prey. Some—including the commonly cultivated oyster mushroom (Pleurotus ostreatus)—produce hyphal stalks capped with a single toxic droplet that paralyzes nematodes, giving the hypha enough time to grow through their mouth and digest the worm from the inside. Others produce spores that can swim through the soil, chemically drawn toward nematodes, to which they bind. Once attached, the spores sprout and the fungus harpoons the worm with specialized hyphae known as "gun cells."

> Olsson and Adamatzky have shown that mycelium can be electrically sensitive, but they haven't shown that electrical impulses can link a stimulus to a response.

> they describe fossilized mycelium preserved in the fractures of ancient lava flows. The fossils show branching filaments that "touch and entangle each other." The "tangled network" they form, the dimensions of the hyphae, the dimensions of spore-like structures, and the pattern of its growth all closely resemble modern-day fungal mycelium. It is an extraordinary discovery because the fossils date from 2.4 billion years ago, more than a billion years before fungi were thought to have branched off the tree of life.

> Lichens encrust as much as eight percent of the planet's surface, an area larger than that covered by tropical rainforests. They clad rocks, trees, roofs, fences, cliffs, and the surface of deserts … Most rocky shorelines are rimmed with lichen. Lichens start where the seaweeds stop, and some extend down into the water.

> The names used to describe lichens sound like afflictions, words that get stuck in your teeth: crustose (crusty), foliose (leafy), squamulose (scaly), leprose (dusty), fruticose (branched). Fruticose lichens drape and tuft; crustose and squamulose lichens creep and seep; foliose lichens layer and flake

> In some situations, lichens reproduce without breaking up their relationship—fragments of a lichen containing all the symbiotic partners can travel as one to a new location and grow into a new lichen. In other situations, lichen fungi produce spores that travel alone. Upon arrival in a new place, the fungus must meet a compatible photobiont

> Lichens have evolved independently between nine and twelve times since. Today, one in five of all known fungal species form lichens, or "lichenize." Some fungi (such as Penicillium molds) used to lichenize but don't anymore; they have de-lichenized. Some fungi have switched to different types of photosynthetic partner

> The 'basic set' of partners is different for every lichen group. Some have more bacteria, some fewer; some have one yeast species, some have two, or none. Interestingly, we have yet to find any lichen that matches the traditional definition of one fungus and one alga."

> Abram Hoffer, a Canadian psychiatrist and researcher into the effects of LSD in the 1950s, remarked that "from the first, we considered not the chemical, but the experience as a key factor in therapy." … psychedelics like psilocybin "dope-slap people out of their story. It's literally a reboot of the system

> Layers of dead and un-rotted forest built up, storing so much carbon that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels crashed, and the planet entered a period of global cooling. Plants had caused the climate crisis, and plants were hit the hardest by it: Huge areas of tropical forest were wiped out in an extinction event known as the Carboniferous rainforest collapse.

> African Macrotermes termites are some of the more striking examples. Macrotermes, like most termites, spend much of their lives foraging for wood, although they aren't able to eat it. Instead, the termites cultivate a white rot fungus—Termitomyces—that digests it for them. The termites chew wood into a slurry that they regurgitate in fungal gardens, known as the "fungus comb," by contrast with bees' honeycomb. The fungus uses radical chemistry to decompose the wood.

> Mycoheterotrophs—"hackers" of the wood wide web—have lost the ability to photosynthesize and draw their nutrients from mycorrhizal fungal networks that lace their way through soil. ( )
1 vote breic | Jun 4, 2020 |
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